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Hillsborough County moves to reclaim $12 million set aside for Bucs' practice facility

TAMPA — It has been 16 years since Hillsborough County voters agreed to pass a half-cent sales tax that paid for construction of Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As part of that deal, $12 million was set aside to build a "first-class NFL practice facility" for the team. The quid pro quo? In order to get the money, the Bucs had to deed the complex to the Tampa Sports Authority, the governmental agency that is the stadium's landlord.

Now county commissioners are laying claim to the money, saying it should be spent on other pressing needs such as parks for children or roads for commuters.

"It's not the Buccaneers' money," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a regular at Bucs games. "It's the taxpayers' money.

"With the increasingly challenging times we have, we cannot afford to leave that money in escrow."

Late last month, commissioners voted unanimously to start the process of taking that money back.

Of course, the Bucs have built something that looks a lot like a first-class practice facility. It opened on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2007 at a price estimated at more than three times the set-aside.

But the team so far has elected not to transfer ownership to the Sports Authority.

Team offices, located at the training facility, were closed late last week and Bucs officials could not be reached for comment.

The topic has been bubbling beneath the surface for years.

Previously, team officials have said that the sparkling complex may have practice fields, workout rooms and equipment to rehab injuries. But it's not the "practice facility" contemplated in the original stadium agreement.

That facility has yet to be built. And documents that called for reimbursement for its construction set no timetable for it to be built. Therefore, the county can't take back the money for the life of the agreement, which runs through 2028.

"We reserve our right to the $12 million allowance in perpetuity," Eric Land, former chief operating officer for the Buccaneers, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2007.

Through the years, several alternatives to a first-class practice facility have been discussed between the Bucs, the Sports Authority and officials with Tampa and Hillsborough County. But they have failed to bear fruit.

The Bucs once suggested that they build a covered practice field behind their current complex and use a portion of the money for that. They have talked about using the money for upgrades within Raymond James Stadium. But each idea went nowhere.

John Van Voris, a former general counsel to the Sports Authority, issued opinions saying those proposals would not be eligible for reimbursement from the sales-tax money without all parties agreeing to rewrite the stadium agreement.

County Administrator Mike Merrill told commissioners at a meeting last month that he believes the county can take its share of the money back. During an annual budget presentation, he said Buccaneers officials have made clear to him that their position hasn't changed — that the money should stay where it is.

"We don't need permission from the Buccaneers," Merrill said. "Now, having said that, I've spoken with the Bucs, and they don't agree with my assessment."

About $11.6 million of the money remains. The team tapped some of it as it analyzed locations and designs for a training complex. The county's share of what's left would be about $8.5 million, based on a population formula for distributing the sales tax money, with the city of Tampa getting much of the rest. Plant City and Temple Terrace could be eligible for much smaller shares, though so far none of the other governments are laying claim to the money.

For years, the issue has lingered without the county or cities treating the matter with much urgency. Meanwhile, the money made interest that helped pay for stadium upkeep. But as taxes for local government continue to slide and interest rates hit historic lows, the money can no longer be treated as off-limits.

"We have important needs," Merrill said. "That money's been sitting there since 1997."

In backup material presented to commissioners, the administration has acknowledged that the move carries some risk. The team could end up building a bona-fide practice center and come looking for reimbursement. There's a chance the county would have to pay up.

The team could also sue, though such a move would carry a substantial public relations risk at a time when it is struggling to fill Raymond James on game days.

Also unclear is what needs to happen next. Can the county simply take back its portion of the money? Would the Sports Authority governing board and other governments have to approve that move?

"This is a work in progress," said Steve Anderson, general counsel to the Sports Authority. "I think for anything to happen, it's going to have to be approved by the Sports Authority because we are the primary party to that agreement."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County moves to reclaim $12 million set aside for Bucs' practice facility 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 9:36pm]
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